2019 disability royal commission
Yooralla CEO Dr Sherene Devanesen (Image: AAP /Megan Neil)

The website for the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disabilities provided a leaflet of useful information for those who planned to attend its hearings at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre last week. Venue maps, transport guides, floor plans, and the contact details for free counselling support were all included.

However, the website failed to mention that the Exhibition Centre was also the venue for the Australian National Cheer and Dance Championships. Apparently there are 52,000 registered cheerleaders in Australia and every single one of them seemed to be in Melbourne, along with their parents, grandparents, siblings and coaches. The sequins! The pom-poms! The hair-bows! I felt as though I’d wandered onto the set of Bring It On and couldn’t find my way out. The middle-aged man on a mobility scooter looked like a potential source of information, but no. He was there for the cheerleaders.

The royal commission outreach team were heavily outnumbered but eventually I was able to identify one of them — more by the lack of glitter on their outfit rather than by their purple staff-tag. I was ushered through the security check and into the hearing, where the sombre discussion on the shortcomings in disability housing stood in marked contrast to the sparkle and razzle-dazzle of the cheerleaders.

A significant number of people with visible disabilities had chosen to attend the hearings in person, while others around the nation followed the livestream and commented online using the hashtags #DisabilityRC, #DisabilityRoyalCommission and most pointedly #OurRoyalCommission.

The frequent reference use of the term “our royal commission” signals the determination by disability advocates to retain ownership of the investigation for which they have fought long and hard. They have not hesitated to express dissatisfaction with the backgrounds of some of the commissioners, and with the high ratio of parents and service providers during the commission’s early hearing.

“Nothing about us without us”, as the slogan proclaims. Disability activists are determined not to be excluded from the royal commission that is fundamentally about abuse committed against members of their community.

On Thursday, the cheerleaders at the Exhibition Centre had been replaced by battalions of Stormtroopers, smurfs, and Disney princesses as the place was invaded by the munchkin guests of the Variety Kids’ Xmas Party. Meanwhile, the events under discussion in the commission hearings, where Yooralla CEO Sherene Devanesen was giving evidence, were as dark as anything from a Grimms’ fairy tale.

As disclosed by media reports in 2012, a staff member who was ultimately convicted of raping four disabled people in Yooralla’s care was allowed to continue working there, without residents and their families being notified of the allegations against him. Devanesen was questioned at length on issues ranging from why Yooralla’s submission to the commission described the crimes committed by their former staff member as merely “allegations”, to Yooralla’s failure to offer either an apology or compensation to all of the staff member’s victims.

And as other witnesses to the commission have testified, the structural issues that allowed the abuse at Yooralla to occur are yet to be addressed. Group housing remains the dominant model for disability accommodation, with residents given little or no say in where and with whom they live.

The advent of the National Disability Insurance Scheme has so far failed to deliver significant change in this area, with new housing still being built along the old, failed model. Criminal assault and abuse is the most serious consequence of this failure, but the denial of basic rights such as choice of housemates, service providers, and respectful conduct from those who provide the most intimate of personal services also has a debilitating effect on the health of disabled people.

The peak-hour commuters shoved me out of the way as they boarded their tram, indifferent to my elbow-crutch and pleas to be allowed on board. I gave the departing tram the finger as it pulled away, wondering for a moment whether the royal commission had empowered me to express my anger in this way.

But no, I decided. It was just that after hours and hours of listening to stories to abuse and trauma, I simply had no more shits to give.